Writing on the wall
Sinister is a horror movie that wants you to feel haunted when you’re done watching it. Its opening scene, a choppy camcorder-quality snippet showing a gruesome four-way murder, certainly makes the audience feel like it will. It has the staple ghostly bad guy and more demented little kids running around than a preschool, and is conveniently released into theaters just before Halloween. It has all the ingredients to be a success.
So, why isn’t it?
Desperate for another hit novel after ten years of public neglect, not-so family man Ellison Oswalt (Ethan Hawke) moves his wife and two young, vulnerable children to a house in Pennsylvania (why do all horror movies happen there?) where a bizarre murder occurred mere weeks prior to their arrival. An entire family was found suspended from the backyard tree with ropes knotted around their necks, and the youngest daughter is missing, condition unknown. Ellison withheld the close-to-home murder from his family so he can track the case’s gruesome history in peace. In the attic, he discovers a box of waaaay outdated rolls of film containing clips of clunky, home-style recordings of pleasant family outings quickly turned to macabre murders: America’s Bloodiest Home Videos, family edition. All recordings seem to be connected by an inhuman figure resembling a real life Jack Skellington briefly appearing in each clip. His name is Bughuul.
The movie finds the strength of its non-fluff fear in these clips. The destination is obvious and repetitive each time, but we still jump when it happens. And there’s something clever about filming the clips on scuffed up Super 8 footage. It made the films much more uncaged and believable than, say, Ellison’s crystal clear iPhone 4S playback would have. (Is it just me or did this movie seem to plug Apple, like, a lot?)
Which is why I find it detrimental that the film insisted on cramming all of the genuinely scary stuff in the first half so it could make time for Ellison to wander through the dimly lit house with nothing but a lit up iPhone (aha!) in search of a mysterious crack he heard. Seriously, this happened about four separate times, thanks to the script’s lack of any outside the box thinking. The script contributed the absolute minimum of what it had to do: there’s a good story on the screen, but there could have been a great one if the script had delved for it. How improved would the film’s pacing and story be if Ethan had discovered each roll of film one by one, with each revealing a new piece of the bigger puzzle? This would have spread out the scariest stuff, given audiences a much more potent fear of the clips, and added a twist to the mystery that actually wasn’t spoiled in the trailer.
It also could have remedied the film’s exhausted final third. Sweaty and panting from its successful opening hour of jolts, the film just… stops. The morbid opening scene can only carry the tone for so long. Good horror films will keep you jumpy days after seeing them. Sinister keeps you on your toes for the majority, but then calms you down before sending you out of the theater. I was looking forward to the post-horror movie paranoia of seeing the film’s shadowy ghoul everywhere I went for a few days, and when he made his first appearance, I was so ready. Bughuul has awesome hair and makeup. But somewhere along the way he is completely sanitized of his mystery and quiet dominance over the movie. I wanted to at least be scared enough to see him appear on my lap top screen a few times – but no, he only does that for Ellison’s Apple MAC (hey wait a minute). The movie’s ending is so predictable that it detracts from Bughuul’s rep. Big build up with no pay off. It felt like abruptly ending a paragraph in the middle of a
Which brings me to my main point. Consistency and perseverance are two of the most important qualities in filmmaking. Unfortunately they are also the only two mistakes the movie makes, and it’s enough to ruin it. If the movie had maintained its quality throughout, it could have easily been the biggest horror film of the year. It ran sprints – not a marathon, thanks to the unbalanced script. I mean, look at me for example. I wrote this entire review without one really bad ‘sinister’ pun. Overall I’m disappointed I can’t rave about the movie’s genuinely good parts because they are overshadowed by its sinisterly bad – oh dang it.